Life is there


Just four hundred meters from a huge cathedral, it looks as if we are in a suburb. A small bar on a side street, with three tables. At one of them, two thirty-something women friends are talking, having escaped for a few minutes from their children; at the other a colorful Gipsy woman, I cannot see the face of the man next to her, and I am sitting at the third one. I ask for a tapas “with some kind of ham”, we discuss how the bread should be toasted and seasoned with alioli, plus a beer. I’m listening to the conversation of those standing at the counter, I’m adjusting my ears to the lisping Andalusian dialect. Even after many years, it is strange how adult people can make do with so few consonants. I’d like to pay, but I spot the barrels behind the counter. I ask for a glass of old jerez to say good-bye. The bartender winks at me. “It’s not good enough.” He pours me from a bottle, San Diego, it is really heavenly. He also praises it to his actual conversation partner, filling up half a glass to him, to prove how good it is. “It smells like wood”, he knocks on the counter. In a Sevillan way, he writes the amount with chalk on the counter, in a vivid, almost Moorish hand; he generously skips the tapas, counting only the beer and the jerez. I take a photo of the beautiful handwriting. He positions himself above it, he imitates writing it once more, I also take photos of it.


I also praise his jerez, he pours another glass, he does not accept money for it. “Salud”, I lift it. While he is pouring one for himself, he points at the security camera, “I really should not do this, but I’m the boss here”. We clink glasses. “What’s your name?” “Tomás.” “Pedro.” “Encantado.” “Tomás, when I saw you browsing the menu outside there, I thought that whoever leaves deserves it, and whoever comes in also deserves it.” He pours again. “However, in Seville, the downtown is not the real thing. But the barrios, the suburbs around it!” He draws a circle with his hand. “Wow. Life is there. I come from Huelva, I have been working here since I was twelve. I lived in twenty-eight places,” he also writes it with number on the counter. “I know everything.” I start questioning him as to what is worth seeing there, where life is. He lists it. Quarters, encounters, loves, friendships. “Because friendship is the most important thing in life.” And of course bars, taverns and cellars, the theaters of friendship, where you can show that you have a friend. “Tomás. On Sunday, at half past two, I close here,  I go with my daughter around Seville, to the white villages. There is such a cellar there, full of wild game, deer, wild boar. Everything is completely fresh. Come with us.” “Thank you.” Obviously, I say, “I will be here.” “Call me beforehand, on Saturday,” he writes on a napkin his number. “I have not invited anyone there yet.”


The Three Kings




Who are these three riders going uphill on the Romanesque bronze door of the cathedral of Pisa? Of course, the Three Kings, we say self-evidently, although, if you think about it more, no attribute proves it: no star and no monger. In our culture, the image of three riders has become an obvious visual topos over the centuries, and it evokes the Three Kings even when it comes to something completely different.

Originally, the three figures had neither horses nor crowns. They came to Bethlehem in simple clothes, on foot, carrying by hand their gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is how we see them in their earliest portrayal, in the Greek Room of the so-called Priscilla Catacomb in Rome, and for centuries afterwards.



A thousand years later, the legend of the Pisan gate, MAGIS (correctly Magi) refers to the humble beginnings. The Latin word, written in a curious local orthography, like in many other places of the bronze gate, refers to the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked: Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Mt 2,1-2)


What the King James Version translates wise men, is μάγοι in the original Greek, and magi in the Vulgata: “magicians”. But already in Matthew’s time, the Greek word had two meaning. One was “magician”, like Simon the Magician or Sorcerer in the Acts of Apostles. The other, original meaning, however, was the Persian magūs, which referred to the Zoroastrian priesthood, and, more broadly, to Persian astronomers. The Zoroastrian Persians also had their own traditions of a Savior to be born, and the Gospel suggests – which the Syrian and Armenian apocryphals then expand in detail – that they also recognized it in Jesus. That is why the magi are depicted even in the 5th century in Persian clothes and distinctive Persian hats. It is a strange twist in the story, that, according to the tradition, the Persian army devastating the Holy Land during the Byzantine-Persian War spared the Church of Bethlehem, because on its gate three characteristic Persian magi brought gifts to the just-born Savior.

The three Persian magi on the 6th-century mosaic of San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna

The three Pagan philosophers worshiping Jesus might have been an attractive model to the newly converted Roman Christians, since they could identify themselves with them. This is why they are so often represented on sarcophagi. And probably for the same reason they are accompanied, from the earliest times, by another motif, the ox and donkey above the manger. These two animals, an inseparable part of all Nativity pictures, are surprisingly never mentioned in the Gospels. In fact, they are only visual representations of the quotation from Isaiah: “The ox knows his master, the donkey his lord’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” (Is 1:3) Therefore, they symbolize the same as the three Persian wise men: that Christians converted from paganism – like, for example, the one lying in this sarcophagus – are more devoted to the true God than the Jews.

The ox and donkey focusing on the manger, as a confession of faith on Stilicho’s sarcophagus (ca. 385) in Milan’s San Ambrogio Basilica

A 4th-century sarcophagus, above with the ox and donkey, and below with the three magi. Arles, Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence Antique

An Ethiopian icon

The Christian exegesis of te first centuries used similar Old Testament parallels to draw out with more detailed features the very sketchy figures of the three wise men of the Gospels. Thus, for example, the star they followed was not considered a true star, but a reference to the prophecy of the pagan prophet Balaam: “A star will come out of Jacob, a scepter will rise out of Israel.” (Num 24:17) So the wise men, and later the kings in the pictures, originally follow not a star, but an angel who leads them to the “Star of Jacob”, that is, Jesus, and who then warns them to go back by another way. How much ink could be saved by the amateur astronomers, if they considered this, instead of trying to reconstruct the wildest constellations and comets for the supposed birthday of Jesus?

Altar of Duke Ratchis, Cividale, 737

Stonemason Gislebertus: The dream of the three kings. Column head in the Cathedral of Autun, 1125-1135

The dream of the three kings in the Salzburg Missal (ca. 1478-1489, München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek 15708 I, fol. 63r)

In the same way, the wise men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh became kings by virtue of that verse of the Psalm: “May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him, may the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts. May the gold of Sheba be given to him.” (Ps 72:10). In the great 14th-century Catalan Atlas – drawn by our old acquaintance, the Mallorcan Jewish cartographer Jefudà Cresques – the three kings even appear next to the name of Tarshish, revealing the source of the identification.


Prophecy is also read elsewhere about the gifts: “Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels from Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense, and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” (Is 60:6). For this reason – and not for the sake of exoticism – camels are already included in the earliest representations with the three magi, whether on the sarcophagi, or in later paintings.

Adoration of the magi. Sarcophagus from Basilica Sant’Agnese in Rome. Vatican, Museo Pio Cristiano, Inv. 31459

Giotto: Adoration of the Kings. Padova, Scrovegni Chapel, ca. 1305

Bartolo di Fredi: Adoration of the Kings, 1385. Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale, originally perhaps in the Duomo of Siena. In the background, in the city of Jerusalem we can discover our old acquaintance, the typical domed church of the Holy Sepulchre


On the Pisan bronze gate, made in 1181, we also find the scene of the Nativity. Bonanno Pisano, the master of the gate, had the original solution – repeated five years later on the gate of the Cathedral of Monreale – of dividing each biblical scene into two adjacent tables of the gate. The two tables look at each other and respond to each other. Here, the scene of the Nativity and the adoration of the shepherds to the left is complemented by the table of the three kings coming from the right, at the bottom of which, as a footnote interpreting the Nativity, the small-print scene of the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Paradise is also represented. This refers to the well-known parallel, that “Adam is the pattern of the One to come” (Rom 5:14), and that “Death from Eve, life from Mary” (St. Jerome, 22.)



The separation of the two scenes also corresponds to the separation of the two feasts, Christmas and Epiphany, which were celebrated by the first Christians on the same day. The reason for the separation is that the Latin and Greek churches calculated the birth of Christ in different days: the Latins on 25 December, while the Greeks on 6 January. Not because – as it has been suggested since the 18th century – the Roman Christians wanted to christianize the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, since this feast was only introduced by Emperor Aurelianus (270-275), precisely to repaganize the Christian feast of Christmas. But rather because the Latin and the Greek solar calendars converted the day of Christ’s death, 14 Nisan in the Jewish lunar calendar, to different days, and, according to the biblical tradition, the prophets died the same day they were conceived. Thus, the Roman calendar converted 14 Nisan to 25 March – which is still the celebration of the Annunciation –, so Jesus was born on 25 December, while the Greek calendar to 6 April, so He had to be born on 6 January. By the 4th century, the Greek world had already adopted the Roman calendar, and the Greek church also celebrates Christmas on 25 December (which today falls on our 7 January, due to the difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars), but the tradition preserved the importance of 6 January. The three kings continue to arrive on this day, just as Jesus is baptized on this day thirty years later. And the two former dates of Christmas constitute a frame for the festive garland of the Twelve Days of Christmas.



The scene divided in two by Bonanno Pisano also symbolizes the unity of the two churches. In fact, the gate of the Latin cathedral displays a Nativity according to the Orthodox tradition. In the late 12th century, the last peak of Constantinople, Byzantine icons inspired Italian art, and the early Renaissance will also germinate from them in the hands of Giotto and Duccio. The model used by Bonanno Pisano can be illustrated with the Nativity icon of the Church of the Dormition of Mary in Berat:


The 16th-century icon, written by Nicola, son of Onufri, the greatest icon painter of Epirus, follows the rules of Orthodox iconography, and every part of it carries a theological reference. In the middle of the rocky landscape, the newborn Jesus lies in a cave, wrapped in swaddling clothes, just as He will lay in a cave, wrapped in a shroud, after His death on the cross. He is recognized as their Lord by the ox and the donkey. A star appears in the sky above the manger, its ray points to the Star of Jacob appearing on the earth. The three kings, representing the pagans, and the shepherds called by the angels, representing the Jews, are coming towards Him. Mary, lying in glorious light, looks to the lower left corner of the picture, where a little tree crops up, referring to the tree of Jesse, the descendance of Jesus: “A shot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a branch will bear fruit.” (Is 11:1) In the lower region, two scenes from the apocryphal gospel of James, both of which are examples of faith overcoming doubt: Salome, the midwife helping at the birth of Jesus, who personally made sure of the virginity of Mary, and Joseph, tempted by Satan coming in the disguise of an old man, with the question: if the conception of Jesus was divine, why did He come to the world in an earthly way?

magi1 magi1 magi1 magi1 magi1 magi1 magi1 magi1 magi1 magi1 magi1 magi1 magi1

Each scene in the two icons are as per specification. They do not primarily narrate past events, but rather visualize verses of the Old Testament, which formulate the theological truth of the Nativity. The figures are needed to make visible, as in a mirror, the real significance of this event. The icon is not a representation in the Western sense, but a window onto the transcendence.

The only real figures, depicted for themselves on both icons, are the lambs, which are wandering free from all iconographic constraints in the transcendent space of the icon. They do not care about the biggest event in world history happening just around them, but they go on grazing, studying the grass, doing their business, like the skating kids in Brueghel’s pictures. They offer an excuse for the painter to use them as decorative motifs, or to happily play with them, like the medieval manuscript painters with the little figures of monsters in the margins. But if we think about Rilke’s Eight ecloge, we can also attach significance to them. They are the animal which does not need visual mediation, because they already see face to face, and by penetrating into the transcendent space of the picture, and freely wandering in it, they also invite us, the viewers, like the children’s faces looking out from the lower corners of the Renaissance paintings.

Mit allen Augen sieht die Kreatur
das Offene… Frei von Tod.
Ihn sehen wir allein; das freie Tier
hat seinen Untergang stets hinter sich
und vor sich Gott, und wenn es geht, so gehts
in Ewigkeit, so wie die Brunnen gehen.
With all its eyes the animal world
beholds the Open. … Free from death.
Only we see death; the free animal has its demise
perpetually behind it, and before it always
God, and when it moves, it moves into eternity,
the way brooks and running springs move.


New Year’s blessing


The Maya man, with a candle in his hand, steps out in the darkness of the night, in the terrible no man’s land between the old year that has gone and the new one that has not yet come. With a copal incense held high, he blesses the four directions of the world in the name of Jesus Christ, asking for good harvest and for protection from all evil to his whole family and their animals. Two dozen men, women and children are standing in a circle. The invisible light source of the incense placed in the middle illuminates their faces from the inside of the scene, like that of the three kings on Nativity paintings. The chiaroscuro of the candles held before them evoke the figures of Caravaggio, La Tour and Rembrandt in the Guatemalan night.


The name of the Israeli documentary film maker Eti Peleg is not unknown to the readers of Río Wang. A year ago we wrote about her film made on the “golden temples”, the monumental syangogues of fin-de-siècle Hungary, and many of you have also taken part at the premiere of her two other Hungarian films, on the onetime Jewish winemakers of Tokaj, and on the history of the song The rooster is crowing. Now she gives us a New Year’s gift, a scene of her Guatemala film in preparation, the New Year’s blessing.

“Exactly a year ago today, I was in Tzalamtun, Guatemala.
It wasn’t the first time I was there. I was among friends.

I didn’t even have to ask. Sebastián beckoned me aside and said, would I agree to film the Ceremony. I was honored and touched. He trusts me.
María Luisa took us to the market to buy the copal, the candles and the plentiful of food for the new year’s feast.
As the ladies prepared dinner in the kitchen, I was wondering what ceremony I am going to witness: a Quechi Maya or a Catholic one?



What a great new year’s present for me!
This film is a token of my affection and respect to Sebastián and Luisa Tiul and their wonderful family.”



The ladder


The Greek monk extends the two wings of the gate. The early morning sunlight shines on the façade of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. The square is still empty. Only a few hours later it will be filled with pilgrim groups, Peruvians and Africans in colorful clothes, Uyghurs in long white robes, Syriac monks with embroidered caps, from every nation under heaven.


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre towers in the middle of Jerusalem like an often-truncated thousand-year-old olive tree, like an old elephant full of scabs. The nave of the former fourth-century basilica, which encompassed the rock of Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus, once reached to the north-south main street of the city, the cardo, today’s Suq Khan ez-Zeit or Beit Habad, the Cloth Street of the bazaar. However, through the devastations of centuries, it was gradually converted into a sturdy building only half its former length, but expanded with many additions. Its main façade, facing the square, is in fact only the former southern side entrance, which took its present form via the destructions of the Fatimid caliphs in 1009, and the reconstructions by the Crusaders a hundred years later. This is how we see it in an early surviving portrait, in Bernhard von Breidenbach’s Holy Land guide of 1486, which we have already written about.

The complex of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and, in front of it, the Cistern of Hezechias, seen from the Ottoman fortress called the Tower of David. The complex is dominated by the Rotunda (or Anastasis, that is, the place of the Resurrection) rising above Jesus’s tomb, and the Crusades-era truncated belfry to the left of the main entrance.

The structure of the complex of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre today (above) and in the fourth century (below). The ancient basilica was accessed via the Propylaeum and the eastern Atrium, whose place is now covered by the bazaar. The southern side entrance, to the left of the rock of the Golgotha, was later expanded into today’s main façade.


The Church of the Holy Sepulchre from Bernhard von Breidenbach’s 1486 Mainz edition

The façade of the church in a photochrome of the Detroit Publishing Company (ca. 1890-1900)

The main façade of the church did not change much during five centuries. The right gate was walled by Sultan Saladin, just like the Frank Chapel to the right of it, which was accessed by stairs, and offered the only direct entrance to the rock of the Golgotha. But the double window of the Armenian chapel on the first floor is still open, just like the smaller window of the Latin Golgotha Chapel to the right. Above the upper ledge we can see the lower dome of the church. The top floor of the belfry with its dome fell victim to an earthquake, and since 1890 it also received an almost flat roof. There is only one interesting detail that does not yet figure in the Breidenbach woodcut, but it does in the 1890 and all later photos. A ladder beneath the right-hand window, supported by the ledge.

The double window around 1890…

…and on Christmas of 2017.

The ladder seems to be just casually leaned against the wall, perhaps for some repair, soon to be taken away. But we know well that temporary things are often the most permanent. The ladder figures in every photo already before 1890. And even before the age of photography, as on the cover of the orientalist David Roberts’ 1839 Holy Land album.

Palm Sunday procession, ca. 1900. Library of Congress

Photo of the American Colony, between 1898 and 1914. Library of Congress



A photo of 1895, from here

In another versions of the Detroit Publisher Company, between 1890 and 1900

Illustrerad verldshistoria, tredje delen, Stockholm 1892, 240.

Picturesque Palestine, Sinai and Egypt, New York, 1881-1884


Drawing by Josiah Wood Whymper, who illustrated books on Palestine published in 1874 and 1878

Félix Bonfils: Merchants at the gate of the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, ca 1865

Photo by James McDonalds, 1864


6 April 1862. Journey of the Prince of Wales to the Middle East, 1862, Part 1.

Photo by James Robertson, 1857

Photo by Auguste Salzmann, 1854

The Holy Land… from drawings made on the spot by David Roberts, 1839.


Adrien Egron, La Terre-Sainte et les lieux illustrés par les apôtres: Vues pittoresques, Paris 1837. The preface is dated July 1836, the picture was probably made around 1832.

In a photo of 1958 by the renowned Armenian photographer family Kahvedjian, it is visible even behind the scaffolding of the façade under restoration, and it does not disappear with it after the works. Thus it has been an integral part of the building complex for at least one hundred and eighty years.



The problem of the “abandoned” ladder was first examined by James E. Lancaster in his study first published in 1998, and then expanded several times. Since then, many more details have been clarified by other authors.

The churches in the Holy Land, built on the main places of Jesus’s life and the history of redemption, are the most sacred places for every Christian denomination. The question is therefore how to share them amongst these groups. Since the Ottoman conquest of the Holy Land, this was regulated by the Porta and the Ottoman authorities, whose fundamental interest was to divide the Christian denominations by inducing their rivalry for the holy places, and thus strengthening their dependence on Ottoman power. The Porta primarily supported the demands of the Greek and Armenian churches, considered to be Ottoman subjects. The spiritual care of the Catholic pilgrims was provided by the Franciscan order, tolerated by the Turks, and they were also supported by the French embassy in Constantinople, which regarded itself as the representative of the whole Catholic population in the Ottoman empire. And there were also the smaller denominations, the Syriac Jacobites and Nestorians, the Maronites, the Georgians, the Egyptian Copts and the Ethiopian Orthodox, whose rights always depended on how much they could bribe the Ottoman authorities.

“In my distress I called on the Lord / He heard my voice from His temple” (Psalm 18:6-7). Coptic monk in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

From the 1750s, the interest of the European great powers turns more and more avidly towards the weakening Ottoman Empire, and the support of the Christian minorities becomes one of the tools of gaining influence. The Russian Empire acts as the representative of the Orthodox believers, who therefore start to demand a greater share of the holy places. For this reason, in 1757 the Porta proclaims a status quo, that is, the unchangeability of the ownership relations between the denominations in the holiest Christian places. When a hundred years later the Russian advance is counterbalanced by the growing influence of the French in the Ottoman Empire and the strengthening of the Catholics, supported by them, in the Holy Land, in 1853, on the eve of the Crimean War, which was just the result of this conflict, the Sultan reaffirms the status quo with a new decree. Despite the many subsequent changes of political power in the Holy Land, this status quo has remained essentially in force, with the relevant denominations as its most jealous guardians. Even today there are frequent verbal, and even physical clashes due to overly or real abuses of competences. In 2004, during the celebration of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, the Greek monks and Franciscan friars fought because of a door left open in error. In 2002, a Coptic monk pushed his chair from the sun to the shade, into Ethiopian territory. After the subsequent clash, eleven monks had to be hospitalized.

Clash of Greek monks and Franciscan friars in front of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Drawing of Fortunino Matania in L’Illustrazione Italiana 1901/48, December 1. The story from the same journal here.

The two fermans of the sultan, of 1757 and 1853, merely stated that everything should remain as it is. But as to how it is, remains unclear in many detail issues, and each denomination has a different tradition of it. The story, customary law and problems of the status quo in the nine most important holy places was first summarized in 1929 by L. G. A. Cust for the British Governor of Palestine in the memorandum The Status Quo in the Holy Places, and it is still the best summary of the matter. The description of the division of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre between the denominations and of the conflicts resulting from it embrace twenty-three pages, including footnotes. To illustrate the nature of the conflicts, it is worthwhile to fully cite the introductory overview of this chapter.

The present ownership relations between the denominations in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

“As in the other Holy Places, the three Patriarchates of Jerusalem alone are considered as having possessory rights in the Church with the exception of the small Chapel in the possession of the Copts. They alone have the right to require the entrance door to be opened on their behalf, to enter in religious procession and to officiate regularly at their will. As is again the case elsewhere, of the Latin Orders, only the Franciscans of the Custodia di Terra Santa have the right to officiate independently. The Copts after a long period of penetration succeeded in establishing an independent foothold in the 16th century, but have no formal residence. They do not hold daily services, but have the right of censing at the shrines : similarly, the Syrian Jacobites have no formal residence and officiate only on Holy Days. Neither the Copts nor the Syrian Jacobites may hold processions unless in company with the Armenians, with the exception that on Good Friday afternoon they each hold a pro­cession independently, after giving prior notification to the Orthodox and the Latins. The Abyssinians have no residence or accommoda­tion of any sort and hold no offices within the precincts of the Holy Sepulchre, excepting their Easter services on the roof of St. Helena’s Chapel, around which they reside.

In the various component parts of the Church the position at the present moment can be summarized as follows:

(1) The Entrance Doorway and the Facade, the Stone of Unc­tion, the Parvis of the Rotunda, the great Dome and the Edicule are common property. The three rites consent to the partition of the costs of any work of repair between them in equal proportion. The Entrance Courtyard is in common use, but the Orthodox alone have the right to clean it.

(2) The Dome of the Katholikon is claimed by the Orthodox as being under their exclusive jurisdiction. The other Communities do not recognize this, maintaining that it is part of the general fabric of the Church, and demand a share in any costs of repair. The Orthodox, however, refuse to share payment with any other Community. The same conditions apply mutatis mutandis to the Helena Chapel, claimed by the Armenians, and the Chapel of the Invention of the Cross claimed by the Latins.

(3) The ownership of the Seven Arches of the Virgin is in dispute between the Latins and the Orthodox, of the Chapel of St. Nicodemus between the Armenians and the Syrian Jacobites, and of the Deir al Sultan between the Copts and Abyssinians. In these cases neither party will agree to the other doing any work of repair or to divide the costs.

(4) The Chapel of the Apparition, the Calvary Chapels, and the Commemorative shrines are in the sole possession of one or other of the rites, but the others enjoy certain rights of office therein. Any projected innovation or work of repair is to be notified to the other rites.

(5) The Katholikon, the Galleries and the Chapels in the Courtyard (other than the Orthodox Chapels on the West) are in the exclusive jurisdiction of one or other of the rites, but subject to the main principles of the Status Quo as being within the ensemble of the Holy Sepulchre.

The three Patriarchates of Jerusalem are each represented by a Superior and clergy permanently resident within the precincts of the Church, and no other rite is entitled to be thus represented.”


The clergy and believers of the Church of the Holy Spirit. Daily scenes on early 20th-century postcards




The memorandum also speaks in detail about the ownership of the façade. The windows belong to the Armenian Chapel of St. John, but the affinity of the ledge beneath it is controversial. The ledge itself belongs to the Greeks, but the Armenians consider its surface theirs, onto which they can descend from the window with the ladder, and use it as a viewpoint on large festivals. Apart from this seldom used practice, the ladder primarily serves to visually perpetuate the demand of the Armenians to some additional square meters of the holy place.

The Greek Orthodox ceremony of the Footwashing in front of the main façade in the early 1900s, with viewers on the ledge beneath the windows of the Armenian chapel. Two versions, probably from two different years.



But when was the ladder put beneath the window? We could say that it was when the Armenian monks first descended to the ledge to watch a ceremony in the square in front of the church. But why were they not repelled then by the otherwise so bellicose Greeks, thus preventing further piracy? Or we could say what is assumed by Lancaster, that once a mason made some repairs on the façade, and then forgot his ladder here, which in time became a part of the status quo, and thereby immovable. But whoever had any serious business with masons, knows well that they just do not forget a cedar tree ladder in any place. Rather, they even take yours with them.



The explanation is provided by the continuation of Cust’s text. For centuries, not only the Christian denominations, but also Muslims, quite precisely the Muslim gatekeepers, were also part of the status quo of the Holy Sepulchre. When, in 637, Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem, he generously did not pray in the main church – thus preventing his followers’ converting it into a mosque –, but in front of it, where now the Omar Mosque stands in memory of this. He returned the church to Patriarch Sophronius, and placed it under the protection of Muslim gatekeepers. This custom has remained for centuries. Since the 1289 conquest, the gate was guarded by the El Insaibi family, and after the Ottoman conquest they had to share this job with the Judeh family. The latter kept the key, and the El Insaibis opened the gate. Of course, this cost money. Opening one gate wing was 80 mils, opening both was 180 mils, which was shared in a 1:2 proportion between the Judeh and El Insaibi families. And this was no little money. The 50-mil coin was already made of silver. Therefore traditionally the church was not opened many times, only for the great feasts. According to the status quo, for example, the Orthodox paid for the gate opening on Holy Thursday, the Catholics for Good Friday, and the Armenians for Holy Saturday.

A fifty-mil silver coin from the time of the British mandate. For this, one of the gate wings would have been opened  two-thirds of its width.

The gate of the church today, with Arabic inscription


On weekdays, however, writes Aviva Bar-Am in her Beyond the Walls: Churches in Jerusalem, 1998, it was not worth it for the monks to have the gate opened. They themselves did not have to walk in and out. They needed food and drink, though. This is why the Armenians descended to the ledge beneath their window, where they pulled up with rope the food brought for them from the square in front of the church. Before the status quo, the Greeks could not protest against this. And the status quo was already laid down with the ladder beneath the window, so they could have said no word against it.

In the various photos and drawings you can also see that the ledge, and even the ladder was used for the cultivation of potted vegetables. Although the ladder was immovable, the pots could freely move on the ledge, the status quo did not apply to them.

A chronological overview of the photographs of the main façade also makes it evident that, at least from 1854 to the 1890s, the ladder was tied with iron straps and nails to the wall of the church. On the one hand, this excludes the forgetful mason theory. On the other hand, it suggests that the ladder might have been in use at that time, and it was important to safely keep the down-and-up traffic, or to prevent its being pushed with a bad move to the square, on the heads of the pilgrims and merchants. From 1895, however, we see an unsteaded ladder here. And in the past ten years even the window was closed with a grid. Thus, the ladder remained with a purely representative purpose beneath the window.

Nowadays, the gate of the church is open every day. The ladder standing on the façade has lost its practical function. It only symbolizes the rights acquired over an impractical good, but it will stay there as long as not only the lamb and the lion, but also the Greek and the Armenian monk will consider each other as brother.

There is something metaphorical in this building tinkered from an once spacious and undivided basilica, where six denominations are fighting for life and death for square meters and symbolic priorities upon an empty tomb and an invisibly walled rock. And that, nevertheless, this huge building, like a tough old olive tree, like an elephant full of scabs, has been towering for two thousand years over the holy city, guarding and displaying its essence, the memory of the resurrection.

The resurrected Christ between His apostles. An icon, long worn by the fingers of the believers, in the Greek Orthodox sacristy of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.